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Cairos Air Pollution Problems History Essay


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The crowded Egyptian streets of Cairo are busy throughout the hot, sunny day with traffic and shoppers. Tourists and Cairenes alike delightfully browse through the magnificent mixture of ancient and modern markets and shops. There is no better place than the Egyptian capital to find deals on priceless merchandise like perfume, gold, silver, spices, carpets, glass, copper, brassware, leatherwork, and the architecturally famous mashrabiya. Bargainers flood the ancient Khan el-Khalili souk and admire unique fabrics at the famous street market of Wekala al-Balaq. Shoppers flock to Mohammed Ali Street in search of musical instruments or the Camel Market for a new addition to the farm. At night, many tourists return to gorgeous villas overlooking the fertile plains along the Nile, while others are attracted to the grand nightlife activities in the inner metropolis ("Cairo, Egypt," n.d.).

However, the densely populated city of Cairo is not only known for its ancient Islamic architecture, rich culture and history, and luxurious tourist destinations along the Nile. It is also rife with people, traffic, and pollution, which has in the past decade become a dangerous addition to the city's name. Every fall, Cairo is plagued with a dense, black smog that brings with it pain and disease (Kenyon, 2008). Called the "black cloud", this phenomenon has occurred annually in Cairo since 1999 (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). Though in recent years the city has become dirty and run-down, it was not always this way ("Cairo," Wikipedia, n.d.). For hundreds of years, the city flourished economically and was considered a beautiful and luxurious dwelling, fit for a king ("Cairo-The past," n.d.).

Over a century ago, Fatimid General Gawhar set out to conquer the Egyptian capital of Fustat-Misr in a quest to expand the kingdom of his ruler, or in Islamic terms, of his "khalif". But when he and his troops approached the great city, he set boundaries just to the north for a new capital for his khalif; he wanted to build palaces in a new city where the Fatimid government could find privacy from normal civilization and continue their own traditions without the culture of the Fustat people interfering. Thus, upon conquering Fustat-Misr in 969, hundreds of workers were placed around the boundary to the north, waiting orders by astrologers to begin digging. However, when the signal was given by accident and the workers began digging too early, astrologers were sure it was a bad omen and the city would be cursed ("The Fatimid period," n.d.).

General Gawhar's leader and the Fatimid khalif, Muiz, moved into the city and claimed it as the new capital of his kingdom in 973. And for 200 years the new city, named Kahira (or Cairo, as it is known today), was ruled by power-hungry, blood-thirsty Fatimid leaders, starting with Muiz himself. The city became enormous and wealthy, but fell under famines and saw times of social despair as the Fatimid leaders over the years created harsh rules and found pleasure in torturing people ("The Fatimid period," n.d.).

In the 1100's, Cairo began an era of growth, wealth, peace, and happiness when Seljuks defeated both Crusader's and Fatimids to gain power over the city ("Ayyubid period," n.d.). Then the Mameluke's, a population of white slaves whose number had increased greatly in Egypt, claimed the Nile city as the capital of their kingdom when they took over Egypt. Again, Cairo expanded its boundaries and flourished as a city along the spice trade route. By 1340, the city was bursting at the seams with nearly half a million people. Then the Black Death plague struck Egypt and by the 1400's it is estimated that as many as 350,000 Cairenes may have died ("Cairo," Wikipedia, n.d.).

When Egypt fell under Ottoman control in 1517, Cairo was named the capital of only a province. But even though the city had lost some of its political importance, it remained a crucial source of Egyptian economic growth until 1798, when Napoleon entered the great city. The French occupation was short as Britain took over the country in 1801 and left Albania in charge in 1805. The British again invaded in 1882 and claimed Egypt as its protectorate until the African country gained independence in 1922 ("Cairo," Wikipedia, n.d.). The European occupation had left its mark on the metropolis, with French and British architecture, restaurants, schools, and a new culture ("French occupation," n.d.).

New bridges and flood control mechanisms encouraged riverfront settlements, and by 1927, Cairo's population had exploded to one million ("Cairo: History," n.d.). After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, President Gamal Abdel Nasser redeveloped parts of the Nile metropolis, including parts of the transportation system. And to avoid overflowing into the fertile land of the Nile Delta, the government built satellite towns and offered incentives to people in an effort to draw them to the towns and away from Cairo. However, the city's population has still grown; it has doubled since the 1960's ("Cairo," Wikipedia, n.d.).

This ever-growing population has created magnificent problems for the city, particularly concerning pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), any amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air that exceeds 200 mg poses serious health risks. In Cairo, levels have reached 305 mg. The city's pollution rate is ten times higher than the national average, making it one of the most polluted cities in the world ("Black cloud," n.d.).

Every October since 1999 a mysterious black cloud descends on the city and sticks around until early winter ("Egypt: Black cloud," 2009). The extremely poisonous smog causes respiratory irritations and diseases, and residents want something done about it (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). However, before plans can be created and implemented, the cause(s) of the cloud must be determined.

Authorities admit that they are still unsure what lies behind the phenomenon of the black cloud ("Black cloud," n.d.). Many factors are believed to be contributors. Residents of Cairo believe the cloud is a direct consequence of the Sharqiya governorate, just to the north of Cairo's governate. This is where a good majority of Egypt's rice crops are planted yearly (Kenyon, 2008).

Rice was planted on a whopping 648,000 hectares of agricultural land in Egypt in 2009 ("Egypt: Black cloud," 2009). Every fall, farmers on the outskirts of Cairo begin harvesting their rice crops (Morrow, 2009). In October, they begin to burn the unwanted rice straw to prepare for the next planting season. Burning the leftovers is the easiest way to clear the fields and prevent the parasites from spreading (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). The mounds of unwanted rice straw that build up in their fields are also attractive homes to rats and snakes that consume their crops and threaten their children ("Egypt: Black cloud," 2009).

According to agricultural experts, two tons of rice straw is produced from one acre of crops. This means that over 3.2 million tons of hay was accumulated in the country in the fall of 2009. Some of this rice hay is used by farmers to feed livestock, but according to experts, 60% of it is burned on a yearly basis ("Egypt: Black cloud," 2009). In fact, in Sharqiya alone, almost 700,000 tons of rice husks are burned each year (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). Much of this burning occurs in the Nile Delta. As the massive amounts of hay are burned, smoke carrying potentially harmful pollutants fills the skies and drifts into Cairo, where it has been known to stay for weeks at a time (Kenyon, 2008).

Maged George, minister of state for environmental affairs, has stated that 50% of Egypt's total air pollution is caused by the burning of rice straw (Morrow, 2009). However, there is skepticism about the exactly how much of the country's air pollution can be contributed to smoke. In 2004, at the National Research Center, one of the top environmental scientists, Dr. Essam El-Hennawy, studied the burning of rice straw and what effects it could have on the air quality in Cairo. He found that the amount of microscopic smoke particles that make it from the Nile Delta to the city of Cairo, about 50 km away, is very small. He estimates that only about 15% of the air pollutants are from the burning of agricultural wastes. Scientists further point out that farmers have been burning rice in the Delta region for decades, but the black cloud phenomenon has only been occurring since the late 1990's (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006).

One thing is certain: smoke from burning fields alone cannot account for the mysterious black cloud that so harshly plagues Cairo every year. The smoke merely adds to the grey haze that emanates from the metropolis year round (Kenyon, 2008). There are over 12,000 factories and 2 million vehicles in Egypt's capital (Fleishman, 2009). Of the 2 million vehicles, most are old taxis and buses, which omit extremely high levels of pollutants, compared to newer, smaller vehicles. El-Hennawy found in his study that industrial sources and vehicle emissions together make up 85% of the city's air pollutants. Though some government officials disagree and believe that the bulk of the air pollution is created by the burning of rice husks, many, including Amin El-Khayal (head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency [EEAA]), agree that vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions are two of the four leading causes of the black cloud (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). The season of the black cloud also correlates with the month of the Ramadan, which is infamous for the horrendous traffic congestion in the Nile City ("Black cloud," 2006).

The geographical and meteorological characteristics of the city also play into the pollution problem. In the fall wind speeds drop and the atmospheric temperatures change, creating a condition in which a great deal of warm air rises and the cool air is trapped in the underlying metropolis. The polluted emissions stay confined with the cold air rather than spreading out into the atmosphere ("Egypt: Efforts," 2008). This meteorological event, called thermal inversion, affects Cairo for months at a time (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). In fact, the thermal inversion effect is what makes the black cloud so visible and obvious though a lot of the toxins are actually present all year round (Morrow, 2009). The city also seems to be at the bottom of a basin topographically. With Moqattam Mountain to the east and the heights of the 6th October district to the west of Cairo, the city is enclosed by high landscape which adds to the air stagnation ("Egypt: Efforts," 2008).

Not only does the massive burning of rice waste contribute to the black cloud, but also the burning of trash. Egypt produces about 25,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day. More than 30% of that is not processed by garbage collection services and is left rotting in the streets or is burned, both of which result in dangerous airborne pollutants (Moheeb, "Talking trash," 2006). In fact, El-Khayal says that burning garbage is one of the largest contributors to Cairo's air pollution, second only to the burning of rice straw (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006).

Excessive amounts of dust supplies a portion of the haze that makes up the black cloud. Many cement factories that opened up in the 1960's in a suburb of southern Cairo set the levels of airborne cement particles at 32 times the limits that the WHO recommended (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). Potentially more dangerous still are the large amounts of dust particles emitted from the some 20,000 metal smelters in the metropolis (Evans, 2004). Lead has been a particular problem in factory sites in the suburbs ("Pushing lead," 1999).

There are several additional theories and rumors claiming that the black cloud mystery is due to the dust thrown up in the desert from the military doing drills, dust storms, and fog rolling in off the Nile River (Fleishman, 2009). But it is agreed amongst both government officials and scientists that Cairo's annual black cloud is mainly a result of the mixture of smoke from burning rice straw and garbage, exhaust from vehicles, emissions from industries, and the weather conditions of the city during autumn (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006).

Perhaps less debated are the obvious consequences of the black cloud. A professor of chest diseases at Cairo University Hospital, Dr. Ashraf Hatem, says that 60-70% of people in the city during late November have the signature flu-like cough that is typical for people living in highly polluted areas (Evans, 2004). Many more experience a burning throat along with irritated and watery eyes (Kenyon, 2008; Evans, 2004).

Nitrous and sulfuric gases are the two most poisonous elements abundant in supply in Cairo air. Such gases can lead to "meta-hemoglobinemia," a condition that decreases the ability of the blood to transport oxygen throughout the body. This condition can have symptoms such as fatigue and an aching stomach, to which many residents are able to adapt (Evans, 2004). However, the long-term effects of the black cloud can be much more devastating.

The WHO estimates that Cairenes take in about 20 times the tolerable amount of airborne toxins (Evans, 2004). The results have been many. In the brain, diseases that cause aggression can occur. In fetuses, deformities are a growing possibility ("Cairo tries," 2007). In the lungs, a person may develop asthma, respiratory failure, tumors, bronchitis, fibrosis of the lungs, pneumonia, and cancer (Fleishman, 2009; "Egypt: Efforts," 2008; Evans, 2004). Hospital officials have testified that there is a 150% increase in the amount of cases of respiratory diseases each year while the black cloud is in town ("Egypt: Black cloud," 2009). Leading epidemiologists agree with a prediction that the pollution from a single year could cause half a million people in Cairo to develop potentially deadly respiratory ailments and cancers sometime within the next 5-25 years (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). Already the pollution has escalated to the point that just in the capital alone 5000 people die a year as a result of pollution ("Black cloud," 2006).

The black cloud not only brings health risks, but also acts as an extremely dense fog, significantly lowering visibility on roads. This makes driving very difficult and leads to an annual increase in the amount of car accident during the fall months (Morrow, 2009).

Ironically, the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs was established just two years before the black cloud phenomenon first occurred. It has been under much criticism for failing thus far to put an end to the black cloud (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). The government has established quotas and laws addressing and greatly restricting the burning of rice straw and other agricultural wastes (Terra Daily). It set a penalty of ending fertilizer subsidies to anyone who disobeys ("Egypt: Efforts," 2008). However, the government has not been following through with its threats (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). El-Khayal says that the problem with making new laws like these is that the government cannot demand that farmers stop burning rice without offering an alternative. In addition, authorities don't have the budgets to monitor them and stop them (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006).

The government has had some success though in lowering the amount of rice husks burned. It has been making some successful efforts to encourage farmers to sell their unwanted rice waste to factories which make it into animal feed or biofuels (Kenyon, 2008). Other plants recycle the rice straw create very effective fertilizer. They can produce 160,000 tons of fertilizer from 300,000 tons of rice crop leftovers. However, an engineer from the Arab Organization for Industrialization says that only about 20% of the rice waste gets recycled ("Cairo tries," 2007). Yet the government believes that in Sharqiya, only a very small amount of farmers still burn their waste (Kenyon, 2008).

The government has made attempts at solving the vehicle exhaust emission problems by trying to convert cars to run on natural gas and trying to remove 20-year-old taxis and buses from the roads. Yet despite such efforts, many believe the government is missing the underlying problem: the city's transportation system all together. It depends on vehicles that emit much more pollutants than alternative systems such as the use of river taxis (Kenyon, 2008). The city does include extensive subway and train systems, yet problems with too many vehicles still persist ("Transport," n.d.). Some believe the laws regulating vehicle emissions, several of which were implemented over ten years ago, have not had any affect because people have not followed them and the government has not enforced them ("Black cloud," 2006; Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006).

On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment believes the efforts are paying off, as the cloud appeared for a total of only 40 hours in the fall of 2009, as opposed to 190 hours the previous year ("Egypt: Black could," 2009). Studies done by the EEAA support the ministry's beliefs, showing that national pollution levels dropped by 34% within a period of five years. Nonetheless, the black cloud has continued to return. EEAA has planned out more strategies to encourage renovation and upgrading of old industrial buildings, control garbage burning, safely recycle waste, and promote environmentally-friendly energy resources like wind and solar energy (Moheeb, "The burning question," 2006). Yet the black cloud will never be completely disolved unless the government can effectively persuade its people to follow the new plan. Otherwise soon, the Cairenes and tourists will be shopping in the cultural and colorful markets and shops amongst the historic, architectural beauty of the city, wearing masks and goggles.

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